Joe Martin (Charles Bronson) lives a happy life with his wife Fabienne (Liv Ullman) in the south of France. Then one night someone rings asking to speak to “Joe Moran” and threatens to kill him. Before Fabienne can quiz him about what is going on, the couple are held hostage by the oily Vermont (Michel Constantin), a man who knows a lot about Joe’s shady past. Resourceful Joe eventually turns the tables on his would-be assassin. With Fabienne’s help he disposes of the body, but upon returning home they are cornered by Ross (James Mason), Barstow and Katanga (Jean Topart). It transpires these men once escaped a military prison together, but Joe fled the scene when Katanga killed a policeman. Now they want to charter Joe’s boat to retrieve a cache of money from the mob and threaten his family to ensure he’ll cooperate.
Fans of the late Charles Bronson would do well to sidestep most those misogynistic vigilante thrillers he cranked out in the 1980s, in favour of his more offbeat and intriguing European work. Exceptional movies like Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970), Rene Clement’s Rider in the Rain (1971), and the strange Someone Behind the Door (1972) showcase Bronson at his most subtle and engaging, long before he lapsed onto autopilot for Michael Winner. He’s at his most watchable in Cold Sweat, a French-British-American co-production whose plot foreshadows that of A History of Violence (2005).
As in David Cronenberg’s masterpiece, an act of heroism indirectly exposes a former criminal’s violent past. Terence Young teases some wry black comedy out of the situation, as Joe and Fabienne brave some unexpected dinner guests while a dead body lies slumped in the kitchen, but doesn’t delve deeply enough into the psychological ramifications. The moment Joe and Fabienne find their home under siege nicely ratchets up the tension in a situation that recalls Young’s earlier Wait Until Dark (1967). Only instead of cute, vulnerable Audrey Hepburn we have brutally efficient Bronson. He’s less interesting once he switches into hardboiled mode, but regular Ingmar Bergman actress Liv Ullmann proves one his strongest, most capable co-stars (“I became an accessory the day I married you”).
The plot progresses in a gripping series of cat and mouse escalations: Joe bumps off one adversary, so Ross kidnaps his daughter. He in turn kidnaps Ross’ hippie girlfriend, Moira (Jill Ireland). Ireland is rather over-the-top as the spacey flower-child (“I love freedom! Freedom to smoke what I like and ball who I like!”), but sparks nicely enough off her real-life husband, Bronson. Despite his rather strained southern (or is it Cajun?) accent, James Mason exudes menace until a neat twist switches him from menace to protector, shielding young Michele from the leering Katanga (“Twelve is such an interesting age”). A final race against time for Joe and Moira features a head-spinning car chase orchestrated by Remy Julienne. The protracted conclusion, which segues from a desert chase to a showdown at sea, leaves a few loose ends but packs plenty of thrills.